- "Never look at the trombones. It only encourages them."-Richard Strauss
- "Many a sinner has played himself into heaven on the trombone." -George Bernard Shaw
Slide trombone, with slide extended. This model has a B♭ to F attachment.
The trombone is a musical instrument in the brass family. It is pitched lower than the trumpet, and higher than the tuba. A person who plays the trombone is called a trombonist.
The word trombone derives from Italian tromba - meaning trumpet - and one - a suffix for "large." Thus, quite literally, a trombone is a "big trumpet." In symphonic literature, the trombone is referred to by its name in other languages, e.g. posaune, sackbut or sacbut, basun, tromba spezzata.
The trombone consists of a cylindrical tube bent into an elongated "S" shape (it is interesting to note that in French, trombone also means "paper clip"). Most trombones are slide trombones. The section immediately following the mouthpiece is a short straight length of tube called the lead pipe. Below that is the slide, which allows the player to extend the length of the instrument, lowering the pitch. Some trombones have valves instead: see valve trombone, below.
Until around the 18th century, the trombone was called the sackbut (literally, "pull - push" in French) in English. This was not a distinct instrument from the trombone, but rather a different name used for an earlier form (other countries used the same name throughout the instrument's history). The sackbut was slightly smaller than modern trombones, and had a bell that was more conical and less flared. Today, sackbut is generally used to refer to the earlier form of the instrument, commonly used in early music ensembles.
The classical trombone can usually be found in such modern ensembles as wind ensembles / concert bands, symphony orchestras, marching bands, military bands, brass bands, brass choirs, etc. It can be part of smaller groups as well, such as brass quintets, quartets, or trios, or trombone trios, quartets, or choirs (though the size of a trombone choir can vary greatly from 5 or 6 to 20 or more members).
Trombones are also common in swing, jazz, salsa, and ska music.
The repertoire of trombone solo and ensemble literature has grown steadily since its beginnings in the Romantic era, and the modern soloist has a wide variety of genres from which to choose. Pre-Romantic (esp. Baroque) literature is often borrowed from other instruments, usually cello or bassoon.
Types of Trombones
The standard tenor trombone has a fundamental note of B♭ (yet is usually treated as nontransposing, see below). Since trombones have no valves or keys to change the pitch by a definite amount, trombonists learn seven slide positions. The slide is in "first position" when it is retracted all the way and in "seventh position" when it is almost completely extended. Extending the slide from one position to the next lowers the pitch by one semitone. Thus, for each note in the harmonic series a downwards interval of up to a tritone may be added to the 1st position note, making the lowest note of the standard instrument an E natural.
Modern tenor trombones often include an extra attachment of tubing which can be activated by a trigger or valve. Depressing this trigger (called colloquially in Britain and the Commonwealth a plug) effectively changes the key of the instrument, facilitating, among many things, the playing of faster passages and legato sections, as well as extending the low range of the trombone. The distance between each position is longer in the new key. There are only six positions available to the player instead of the standard seven as the slide is too short for what is effectively a trombone in F; the distance between positions is 4/3 as long as for a B♭ instrument.
The modern bass trombone is also built in B♭ and played in C. It is similar in length to the tenor trombone but has a larger bore size and two valves that change the key of the instrument -- generally to F and D (sometimes E♭) -- making it easier to play lower notes. This also allows the player to bridge the entire gap between the first harmonic and the fundamental. The notes on the bass trombone are played in the same position on the slide as the tenor trombone. There is usually one bass trombone player in a standard symphony orchestra, and they are also often seen in swing bands, wind ensembles, and a variety of brass groups.
Earlier versions of the bass trombone were of smaller bore than modern bass trombones described above. These were pitched in 'G' or 'F', had a longer slide and a handle attached to the slide to allow for full extension to seventh position.
The contrabass trombone is probably the rarest extant, pitched an octave lower than tenor or bass trombones. There are various ways and means of producing a double-length trombone, but a relatively common (and space-saving) device is a double-coiled slide. Wagner's Ring Cycle calls for a contrabass trombone. More about contrabass trombones. (http://www.contrabass.com/pages/cbtbn.html)
The alto trombone is pitched in E♭ or F, and is smaller than the tenor trombone. Because of its shorter length, the slide positions are different than on the tenor and bass trombones. The tone of the alto is more brilliant than that of the tenor or bass trombone. The alto trombone is primarily used in symphonic settings, although it has enjoyed a history as a solo instrument. Modern composers have rediscovered the instrument and the alto trombone has begun making more appearances in modern compositions. Modern professional tenor trombonists in the classical music realm are increasingly expected to also have fluency on alto trombone.
The soprano trombone is an even shorter instrument, and offers a brighter, more trumpet-like sound than any other trombone. Essentially a "slide-trumpet" (its mouthpiece is generally a trumpet mouthpiece), scores for the soprano trombone are found in trombone choir and other brass ensembles, though few classical pieces call for the instrument. Indeed, the history of the soprano trombone is questionable, and it may be that the instrument is not a classical instrument at all, but a more modern derivation of the trombone.
The sopranino trombone and piccolo trombone are even smaller and higher instruments than the soprano. They are also extremely rare. They are called for in some trombone choir literature.
Valve trombones, although potentially in any pitch, almost always have the same tonal range as a tenor trombone, though a somewhat different attack, as they are shaped more like very large trumpets. Some musicians consider them difficult to play in tune, although a small minority (often former trumpeters whose embouchures are more suitable to lower-ranged instruments but prefer not to learn slide technique) prefer them to the more common slide trombone. Other instruments with similar range and tone quality are the baritone horn and euphonium. Wagner also wrote a part for a bass trumpet in his Ring Cycle, and Berlioz for his Grande Messe des Morts; these parts are normally played by trombonists. A handful of other works in the classical repertoire also use this instrument.
Playing the Trombone
As with all brass instruments, progressive tightening of the lips and increased air pressure allow the player to move to a different partial, up the harmonic series. In the lower range, significant movement of the slide is required, but for higher notes the player need only use four or fewer positions of the slide, since the partials are closer together, allowing higher notes to be played in alternate positions; for example, F natural (at the bottom of the treble clef) may be played in both first, fourth and sixth positions. The note E1 [or the lowest E on a standard 88-key piano] is the lowest attainable note on a straight tenor trombone (i.e. without a trigger), requiring a full 2.24m of tubing, but the repertoire seldom demands anything below G1.
Musician on left with slide trombone; on right with valve trombone.
The trombone (unlike most brass instruments) is not normally a transposing instrument and reads the bass clef (especially bass trombones), although it is not uncommon for trombone music to be written in tenor clef, or sometimes even alto clef. The use of alto clef is usually confined to older orchestral first trombone parts, with the second trombone part written in tenor clef and the third part in bass clef. As alto trombones are no longer in very widespread use, this is rather a declining tradition, akin to writing Double Bass parts up a twelfth. Exceptions to this occur often in Soviet and older Eastern European orchestral music, where many pieces have both 1st and 2nd (tenor) trombones notated in alto clef.
In brass band music, however, the trombone is treated as a transposing instrument in B♭ and reads the treble clef. By happy coincidence, this puts the notes in exactly the same stave position as they would be if the music were written in a (non-transposing) tenor clef, though the key signature must be adjusted. A similar conversion can be used to read E♭ bass or baritone saxophone parts on occasion; one simply reads treble clef as bass and adds three flats to the key signature. Such methods call for a certain flexibility of thinking but are no challenge for a sufficiently versatile musician.
A variety of mutes can be used with the trombone to alter its timbre, including the cup mute, straight mute, bucket mute, solo tone mute and wah-wah mute. In addition to mutes which are fitted inside the bell of the horn, other effects are used (especially in jazz playing) with objects held in the hand in front of the bell or moved in and out of the bell. These include a wah-wah effect with a metal cup which looks like a bowler hat, and the plunger, which looks like (and often is) the rubber suction cup from a toilet plunger. On occasion actual hats have been used, as have soap dishes and even stranger objects.